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Local
Simple solutions and game changers: Local hospitals prepared to treat influx of COVID-19 patients

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue a double digit daily streak in Floyd County, healthcare providers are adapting to the number of infected patients that require hospitalization.

The good thing, Dr. Sheila Bennett said, is despite the increasing numbers they’re prepared.

Dr. Bennett, the executive vice president and chief of patient services at Floyd Medical Center, said the ability to rapidly test patients in house has been a game changer but the large increase in new cases — and hospitalizations — is worrying.

In response the hospital will be moving some non-ICU COVID-19 patients to a 20-bed mobile intensive care unit early next week. The unit was brought in by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency as an overflow facility for the region. The patients are being moved to open up room in the main building for those patients with more acute conditions.

That 20 bed unit isn’t the first expansion Floyd has done to cope with COVID-19 positive patients. The hospital converted the Northwest Building on Floyd’s campus which used to be Kindred Hospital to house COVID-19 positive patients in April.

“We’re fortunate to have the Northwest Building, but we’re full,” she said. Floyd has also converted a parking area to a 200-bed emergency overflow area, they refer to as P1, which has not been used up to this point.

As of Friday, Floyd Medical Center had 37 COVID-19 positive patients and seven patients waiting the results of a test. Redmond Regional Medical Center has 29 COVID-19 positive patients and 2 patients waiting on test results.

Many of the patients being treated in local hospitals are from South Georgia, Redmond CEO John Quinlivan said.

On top of treating patients from out of the area, the coronavirus has made a time that’s not usually all that busy for hospitals fairly busy.

“It’s manageable,” he said. “Our census has steadily ticked up though.”

Floyd County has had 354 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks — for comparison in the past two weeks we’ve had the same amount of positive cases that we had cumulatively from March through the middle of June.

That brings our total number of cases to 1,206, an increase of 38 overnight and continuing a streak of double digit gains through the past two weeks.

Floyd County isn’t the only area seeing a notable increase of cases in the past two weeks. Many counties which have had relatively low number so far — like Polk and Gordon — have seen sharp increases in infections recently.

Simple solutions

Three things, Quinlivan said: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.

“If we could get people to do those three things, this thing would be gone,” he said referring to a recent speech by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.

During that speech Dr. Redfield said if people would abide by those basic tenants the virus would be under control within four to eight weeks.

Remembering to follow those guidelines, even when around friends and family is vitally important, Bennett said.

“When you get in the car with friends or family and ride with them ... there are so many asymptomatic carriers,” Bennett said. “You don’t know who they’ve been exposed to.”

So far Floyd hasn’t had any employees get COVID-19 from taking care of patients, but they have from community exposure.

When people go out and mix in the community they often eschew practices they follow while at work and it’s showing in the increased spread of the coronavirus.

“We have got to get that message out,” Bennett said.

Game changers

More tools and experience in treating COVID-19 positive patients and in house rapid testing have been game changers, Dr. Bennett said.

When testing demand increases, that stresses the capacity of labs to quickly return test results.

For hospitals, that means more use of personal protective equipment for patients who may have a COVID-19 infection, but haven’t tested positive for the disease. The amount of difference changes from a one to two day wait time for results to a seven day window is something that can sap needed resources.

That was one of the issues hospitals faced in March and April during the initial surge of COVID-19. But with rapid testing, which can be done in house, they have results quickly and know what they’re dealing with, Bennett said.

“As for PPE we’re in good shape,” Bennett said. They planned ahead and as the availability for needed personal protective equipment opened up, they stockpiled.

Their toolkit to deal with COIVD-19 patients has increased dramatically. Through the use of less invasive oxygenation, steroids, the drug remdesivir — which shortens the lifespan of the virus — and treatment with convalescent plasma doctors have been able to effectively treat patients.

“Treatments are so much more effective now,” Quinlivan said.

A recent report is showing a locally led initiative is really showing results.

Dr. Matt McClain has been heading up research locally using the antibodies in plasma from those who have already been infected with COVID-19 and it appears the treatment effectively lowers mortality rates.

“Convalescent plasma has a possible 57% reduction in the mortality rate, that’s potentially a game changer,” Dr. McClain said.

The locally-based research, which has been done in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, has given Rome the benefit of being prioritized while the research has been conducted.

“Rome is currently on the cutting edge concerning treatment,” McClain said.

That may soon change. If the Food and Drug Administration approves the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment then the area will lose that benefit, he said. That could potentially happen as early as next week.

Despite that, the need for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to donate plasma is as — if not even more — important.

“Dr. Dan Valancius has done a fantastic job of referring people who have been (tested positive for COVID-19) to donate plasma,” McClain said. “We do need people to donate rather significantly.”

Georgia World Congress Center reopened as overflow facility

The Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta will reopen to receive coronavirus patients on Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

The facility, which has a capacity of 120 beds, will house 60 beds initially and increase based on need.

This will mark the second time the convention center has been tapped to help with an overflow of coronavirus patients. A 200-bed alternative care facility there was activated back in April as COVID-19 cases soared and state officials rushed to boost emergency bed capacity.

Its operations were paused in late May as the governor moved to relax business restrictions and jump-start the state’s flagging economy.

But COVID-19 cases have been rising again since the beginning of July. As of Friday afternoon, 18,689 Georgians suffering from coronavirus were hospitalized, including 3,414 patients in intensive care.

The number of confirmed cases in Georgia had risen to 186,352 — 4,149 overnight. The virus has killed 3,752 Georgians, with 81 of those perishing in the past 24 hours.

Grady Memorial Hospital will serve as the lead hospital for clinical oversight for the 120-bed facility at the Georgia World Congress Center.


Local
Weekend voting to take place Saturday at the county administration building, early voting in GOP runoff ends August 7

After the first two weeks of early voting for the Republican primary runoff election, 1,942 people have cast their votes at the Floyd County Administration Building.

Poll workers have been taking precautions with voters coming into the community room on the second floor.

They’ve been offering hand sanitizer and masks to people at the door and wiping down the equipment after each use. So far, according to Floyd County Chief Elections Clerk Robert Brady, things have been going smoothly without any equipment failures.

Weekend voting will take place this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the administration building as well. This is the only day for weekend voting before early voting ends on Aug. 7.

While some people are opting to vote in person, 5,271 people were issued absentee ballots and almost 3,000 ballots have already been processed by the elections office.

Voters mail in their ballots or use one of the two ballot drop boxes at the Rome-Floyd County Library at 205 Riverside Parkway or in front of the elections office at 12 E. Fourth Ave.

The boxes are usually emptied every three days, but during the last week of early voting, they’ll be emptied every 24 hours.

On election day, Aug. 11, elections office staff will begin tallying absentee ballots at 9 a.m. instead of waiting until after the polls close like they did on June 9.

All 23 county voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day. Brady believes this election will go a lot more smoothly than the June 9 primary election. Last weekend, poll workers went through a two-hour training course to address the issues of the last election.

“There’s going to be another set of training for the managers and assistant managers and the primary thing we’ll talk about is all the things that go into opening and running the precinct,” he said.

So far, there has been an 8.14% voter turnout for the runoff election, according to Brady. For the general primary, the turnout was around 37%.

“People need to remember that the runoff is important also,” he said.

With no Democratic opposition in the Floyd County sheriff’s race, the Republican primary will determine if Tom Caldwell or Dave Roberson will take the office after Sheriff Tim Burkhalter retires in December.

The runoff will also determine if Marjorie Greene or Dr. John Cowan will be the Republican candidate for the U.S. House 14th Congressional District. All registered voters, except those who voted in the Democratic primary, are eligible to vote in the runoff.

For more information concerning the runoff election, email Brady at bradyr@floydcountyga.org or call the elections office at 706-291-5167.


Nate Matheny, a student at Model Elementary School


Business
New chamber leaders ready to move forward

The two newest members of the Rome Floyd Chamber leadership team, Pam Powers-Smith and Thomas Kislat, are settling into their new roles and ready to help rejuvenate the local economy.

Powers-Smith is the new director of Business and Industry Services while Kislat is the director of Membership and Entrepreneurial Development.

Kislat’s post was held by current Chamber President Jeanne Krueger and had been vacant for close to a year as Krueger transitioned to her new post.

“We have more new members since the pandemic started than we’ve had members drop,” Kislat said. He has helped add 15 new members since April while only seven have dropped during that same period of time.

“We’re getting approximately one new chamber member a week and there are a few pending right now,” Kislat said. “And they’re not just companies from here. Some are from Marietta and Cartersville so I think that goes to show that Rome remains a strong market.”

The chamber has played a lead role in the promotion of entrepreneurial opportunities for the last decade.

“We need to work with the talent that is here and need to keep that talent here,” Kislat said. “The interaction between inventors, companies, the colleges remains a strong item on the agenda.”

Kislat said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped some businesses take a long, hard look at how they’ve always done things and how they might need to change in the future. He cited use of retail websites as one way some businesses have been able to continue to stay alive and introduce their goods and services to even larger markets.

The chamber has also launched a Shop Chamber website to support local businesses who may not have a website of their own.

“There are about six vendors on there right now and the feedback has been amazingly good,” Kislat said.

The chamber also offers startups the OTR Entrepreneurial Suite, with four computer-equipped work stations to help new businesses ease into the community without huge upfront costs.

Powers-Smith joined the Rome Floyd Chamber from Opelika, Alabama, where she served as president of the Opelike Chamber of Commerce for a little more than three years.

One of the main components of her job is assisting members of the Greater Rome Existing Industries Association.

“I consider myself a problem solver for them, a conduit for them if they need anything from the city or county,” Powers-Smith said. “The other import piece of that is making sure that our legislators know what helps local businesses and what hurts them, that sort of thing.”

Since Powers-Smith came to the chamber, all of the GREIA meetings have been held via Zoom. That means she’s only gotten to know many of them via the computer and said she’s excited for the time when she is able to get out and have more face-to-face contact with the manufacturing community in Rome and Floyd County.

Much of the focus of recent meetings has dealt with how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic with an emphasis on some of the OSHA guidelines that have changed. Transportation issues have also been a big topic recently.

“We’ve had some economic folks talk with them about predictions for the coming months, which are actually pretty good,” Powers-Smith said.

“As of Friday (July 24) we didn’t have anybody not in production,” Powers-Smith said. “We still have a few running limited lines but everybody’s working.”

She also said that there has been a lot of talk about the growth of the Appalachian Regional Inland Port and use of that facility to help get local products to the port of Savannah and out to the world.

She said the majority of the manufacturers and major industrial firms are members of GREIA, which is still being led by Mark White at Fairbanks. John Cothran from Brugg Lifting North America will take over in December.


Local
State senators talk about constitutional questions, the budget and the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital property

Voters are going to finish up some Georgia General Assembly business when they go to the polls in November.

Two proposed constitutional amendments will be on the ballot. One would allow people to sue the state in superior court. The other would prevent lawmakers from redirecting dedicated fees.

“That’s been near and dear to local governments over the years,” said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. “It means that fees, like the one you pay on scrap tires, will be used for the purpose they’re collected for.”

Fees and fines levied for specific activities — such as cleaning up illegal dumps and abandoned hazardous waste sites, teen driver’s education and trauma care — are currently paid into the general fund. That means legislators can use the revenue to fund other parts of the budget as well.

The late Rep. John Meadows of Calhoun worked closely with Coosa River Basin Initiative and other advocates for years, trying to tie the fees to the trust funds.

Sen. Jay Powell of Camilla, who took over the chair of the House Rules Committee after Meadows died, sponsored the current bill before he died in late 2019.

Lawmakers finally passed the measure putting it on the ballot before the session closed out this year.

It was one of a number of legislative actions that Hufstetler and his guest, Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, explained to Rome Rotary Club members Thursday during a videoconference meeting.

Voters also will decide if the sovereign immunity protection for city, county and state governments can be waived.

“Americans believe if the government is doing something unconstitutional, you should be able to sue them to make them stop. But you can’t sue the government,” Tillery said.

There are certain exceptions in place, but the restrictions are difficult to overcome. Lawmakers have been trying to address the issue for several years, following a case against the Georgia Department of Natural Resources where the state’s high court confirmed the immunity.

“In November, the question will be, ‘Should Georgians be able to seek redress in their court system when the state is doing something outside the law,” Tillery said. “I don’t know any reason why you wouldn’t vote yes, unless you were the government ...”

Hufstetler said he supports the measure as well.

“It doesn’t allow for attorneys fees but it does allow you to challenge decisions,” he said.

It takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for constitutional amendments to be put on the ballot, and the enabling legislation isn’t subject to a veto by the governor.

Hufstetler, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Tillery, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, primarily focused on the state budget. But they also covered other ground.

Glynn County will be voting in November to possibly abolish its police department, Hufstetler said — a response to corruption concerns that started before the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery garnered national attention and energized the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hufstetler was the cosponsor of a bill brought by Sen. William Ligon Jr., R-Brunswick, that would have let any county with both a police department and sheriff’s office call a vote to disband the police.

Floyd County is one of about 14 counties that has both agencies. Hufstetler said Ligon represents Glynn County and the bill was meant only to target that department.

The measure that ultimately passed, Senate Bill 509, was sponsored by Ligon alone, as local legislation.

It sets up a referendum on abolishing the Glynn PD as of May 2, 2021, and transferring its assets to the county sheriff.

“Besides hate crimes bills, we need to go after the root of the problem. This does,” Hufstetler said. “I got some heat from my local (Floyd County) police department, but we weren’t going after them. They’re a great department. We need to keep them.”

Tillery, whom Hufstetler called “a young rising star in the Senate,” has deep Rome ties. Hufstetler and his father went to elementary and high school together. And the Vidalia lawmaker said he still has aunts and uncles in town that he visits.

“My mom went to Berry (College) and my dad went to Floyd Junior College,” he said, referring to what is now Georgia Highlands.

Tillery noted that state budget cuts have led the Department of Behavioral Health to shut down maintenance operations at the former Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital.

The 150-acre psychiatric facility on North Division Street was closed in 2010. Several ideas have been floated for repurposing the site but the debt it carries made them unworkable.

However, Tillery said he and Hufstetler and Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, have been meeting with state officials to come up with a plan.

“I’m hoping we can return that to your tax rolls soon,” he told the Rotarians.